In Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Atul Gawande, surgeon, 2006 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, writer for The New Yorker, reflects on what it means to excel and be successful in medicine. The MacArthur Foundation website states that the Genius awards go “to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” It’s a very suitable description of Gawande, who in his writings is greatly concerned in making medicine better.
Gawande is also an eloquent speaker and speaks on many occasions to students. At the end of this book, he includes five suggestions that he likes to give on how to be a positive deviant, an outlier that outperforms and stands out from the majority. One of these suggestions is to write. Here is Gawande on why you should write (emphasis mine).
Write something. I do not mean this to be an intimidating suggestion. It makes no difference whether you write five paragraphs for a blog, a paper for a professional journal, or a poem for a reading group. Just write. What you write need not achieve perfection. It need only add some small observation about your world.
You should not underestimate the effect of your contribution, however modest. As Lewis Thomas once pointed out, quoting the physicist John Ziman, “The invention of a mechanism for the systematic publication of ‘fragments’ of scientific work may well have been the key event in the history of modern science.” By soliciting modest contributions from the many, we have produced a store of collective know-how with far greater power than any individual could have achieved. And this is as true outside science as inside.
You should also not underestimate the power of the act of writing itself. I did not write until I became a doctor. But once I became a doctor, I found I needed to write. For all its complexity, medicine is more physically than intellectually taxing. Because medicine is a retail enterprise, because doctors provide their services to one person after another, it can be a grind. You can lose your larger sense of purpose. But writing lets you step back and think through a problem. Even the angriest rant forces the writer to achieve a degree of thoughtfulness.
Most of all, by offering your reflections to an audience, even a small one, you make yourself part of a larger world. Put a few thoughts on a topic in just a newsletter, and you find yourself wondering nervously: Will people notice it? What will they think? Did I say something dumb? An audience is a community. The published word is a declaration of membership in that community and also of a willingness to contribute something meaningful to it.
Inspiration. Moments when life gets elevated to a kind of dreaminess. The belief that there’s something more, something better than what the eyes see.
I think about my last decade, about the books I’ve read, about the people I’ve known about, and I notice a pattern. From time to time there are individuals who inspire me not just intellectually, but also emotionally. I may encounter their voices in a book, an interview, or a speech, but a single trait impresses me over and over again. It is this: the ability to treat work as a calling .
What Inspiring People Have in Common
Muses—that’s what they are, spanning across time and interests. From Paul Kalanithi’s poetic reflection on the moral imperative to be excellent in neurosurgery, a work that treads delicate boundaries between the body and the soul, the brain and the person’s identity, Atul Gawande’s pursuit to better medical practitioners as stewards of other human beings, Oliver Sacks’ deep awareness of the humanity in each of his neurology patient, war photographers and conflict journalists’ death-defying commitment to tell the truth, David Axelrod’s hopefulness on politics as a powerful medium to impact the lives of many people, in spite of the corruptions that he has witnessed, Seth Godin’s anthem on true and genuine content as the essence of marketing, that trust is the currency transacted between you and your audience, a sacred thing not to be abused, Hope Jahren’s love for plants and for a science that can’t be measured by its money-making power, but still important to study, Bryan Stevenson’s dedication to advocate for the most helpless in the criminal justice system, to artists and craftsmen toiling to perfect their creation. Each of these individuals treats their work, almost ceremonially, as something sacred. They handle their lifework with reverence, embracing its true value, and applying themselves to it with excellence, rigor, and most of all, love.
They treat work with a deep sense of personal responsibility. It’s not a job that someone else imposed on them, something they would push to someone else if they could. They work with conviction, a commitment to do the right thing even if it’s hard, no matter what the consequences. There’s stubbornness in their hope and optimism, which in its self-fulfilling way propagates to the rest of us. They don’t only exist in book world. Occasionally I meet them in real life too, everyday heroes who see the true essence of their work, the essence of its good, and do them with excellence.
I resonate with this Way of living in the core of my being. I consider these individuals having reached a certain fullness of being alive. These are not perfect people, as their strengths may be interwoven with weaknesses in other areas. They may even be tortured souls in one way or another. But because they have lived, we become better.
Living a calling requires an idealism that must be tested by hardships. The inevitable struggle, an incarnation of the classic idealist vs. realist debate, will manifest itself. How to work with purity in the face of life’s commercial need? What about money? How do we pay the bills?
Some of us don’t have the luxury to be idealists, some may say, and yes, fair points. But let’s face it. The idealists are the ones who ennoble humanity here on earth. Their approaches, infusing meaning to the mundane, lift our existence up and refresh us with honor and nobility. They remind us that there’s something better, some way better.
Searching for True Value
In my own life, I seek for this deep meaning in engineering, in reading, and in writing. What does it mean to do good engineering, not just doing it well? What does it mean to read well, to not just be entertained, but to be taught and to share experiences with the author? What does it mean to write well, to honor the trust that you, readers, have given me by spending your time on this site? How can I produce something valuable, something that would make people better, somehow, as a result of reading the blog?
I consider these worthy questions, never too idealistic to pursue. In fact, without this pursuit, my own idealism and optimism would have died. Like those muses, I want to live a worthy life, do worthy things, and present a little gift to the world during my existence on this planet.
The Power of Choices
Often times, there are disappointed or wistful voices lamenting the fact that society is not as noble as it used to be. There’s this nostalgia of a time and place where humans were collectively better, when everyone valued work as a calling.
I’m actually not sure if such times existed. I don’t think that there was ever an ideal time to be an idealist, for each age and society has always had their optimists, their in-betweens, and their pessimists, with tensions between each group. This nostalgia may be hindsight bias, a cleaned-up version of history, because idealism makes good stories. Stories get told and re-told for generations, and somehow, we convince ourselves that only these good things happened, or that past has a monopoly on good stories.
The truth is, honor and nobility of purpose have always had its oppositions and naysayers. Idealists will always have lovers and haters. There’s nothing essentially different about human nature now, vis-à-vis idealism, than in the past. Idealism and hopefulness have always been inspiring. They have always incited a spectrum of reactions, among which are dismissal and contempt.
But if any age and society could produce heroic idealists, this would mean that there’s nothing preventing me from being one today. In fact, all those who have inspired me recently are my contemporaries in the 21st century.
What’s left between me and having a worthy life is a choice. Sure, there will be resistance, challengers, and naysayers. Circumstances may make it difficult; bills still need to be paid. But ultimately, these external factors cannot override the simple fact that I decide to strive for a noble life. It’s my decision. And it can be yours too.
You can choose to live honorably today. You can choose to treat your work with excellence today.
 This is a twin concept of finding your calling. Similar, but not identical, since I believe one can know one’s calling in life intellectually and still treat the work with no reverence.
Summer’s here! Since I’m solar-powered, I’m all charged up for a season of fun. How about you?
Summer’s the time to try new things, experience new adventures, and explore new worlds. This is true for my reading selection as well. Maybe it’s because my circadian rhythm is still calibrated to the academic calendar. I’m usually a nonfiction, idea books type of reader, but for summer, I like to venture out to travel books, selected fiction, biographies–more story-based books. Here’s my summer reading list for 2016, taken from my antilibrary–the books on my shelf that I haven’t read. If you’ve read any of them, please let me know what you think! And I’d love to hear about what you’re reading too.
I got this book for $1 from Half Priced Books. Score! I recently finished another of Sacks’ book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales, which is the scariest book I’ve ever read (will tell another time). With this and his essay collection, Gratitude, I’ve concluded that I enjoy his writing tremendously. Oliver Sacks had a poetic voice in telling human stories, a virtue that I find existing in my favorite authors. Uncle Tungsten is about his childhood and his love for the elements in the periodic table (in fact, in Gratitude, he wrote about his personal collection of these elements and how he thought about aging something like traversing across the periodic table, each atomic number matching his age). It’s probably the perfect mix of nerdy and poetic for me.
In my household, I’m usually the book buyer. But this one is my husband’s, also an engineer and fellow nerd. This is the only book I’ve seen that he read enthusiastically, sparking all kinds of conversations about technology and innovation at home. Apparently, it’s the kind of book that makes you want to build a plane. We’ll probably repeat those conversations when it’s my turn to go through the book.
Having listened to Atul Gawande’s audiobook, Being Mortal, I’ve grouped him together with Oliver Sacks (and Paul Kalanithi and, my guess, Siddhartha Mukherjee–see below) as medical practitioners who are also excellent writers. They seem to reflect deeply on the human experience as they encounter individuals in medical crises, and this is an amazing trait. I look forward to hear more from Gawande.
Eka Kurniawan is an acclaimed Indonesian writer whose works’ translations have been increasing rapidly over the past year. The books themselves have been published for many years in Indonesian, but only last year were this book and another one, Man Tiger, translated to English. I read Man Tigerlast year, and it is a spectacular piece of literature. I’ll be reading Beauty Is A Wound in Indonesian, my mother tongue.
Gotta have a brainy book on the list. The first time I saw this book, it was at a bookstore. Its catchy neon green caught my eye. Sure enough, its topic of thinking and the workings of our mind was one of my favorite reading subjects. Over the next few days, I kept thinking about this book and I finally bought it online. Imagine my surprise when I saw the hidden text on the cover. Pssst…Hey There. Yes: You, Sexy. Buy This Book Now. You Know You Want it. These texts were so subtle that you couldn’t see them on the physical book cover, especially if you didn’t know they were there. So did I buy this book because it subliminally tricked me into doing so???
Notable New Releases
Or, books I would buy right now if I didn’t have some 50 unread books piling on my shelf. They sound so interesting!
Two things that make this book super appealing: gravitational waves and women in science. I was among the thrilled and goosebumps-covered people when on February 11, 2016, the LIGO scientists made the public announcement that they had detected gravitational waves for the first time ever. Their observations confirmed Einstein’s theory from 100 years ago. The fact that the science works is simply amazing to me. This book is the story of these LIGO scientists and their work through decades of trying that finally bore fruits this year. I’m also thrilled that just this year, there have been super interesting books written by women in science!
Stories of adventurers discovering the world at a pedestrian’s pace have fascinated me since I read Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between. It brings into view an intimate story of humanity that we don’t usually see through the regular media.
So there goes my reading list. What are you reading this summer? Please share in the comments below!
Between Jerusalem and Athens is a 7-part essay series on worldviews.
Since last year, I’ve been thinking about meta-questions: What caused us to think in a certain way? Where did ideas—those I subscribe to and those I don’t understand—come from? What influenced the prevailing thoughts in a given society? What are their strengths and shortcomings?
You may say it’s an exercise of intellectual empathy, an attempt to understand others and myself, and to learn the vocabularies by which we can converse across different worldviews.
Between Jerusalem and Athens as a title represents this cross-cultural look at the world, which is probably more a reflection of me than of the world itself. Jerusalem and Athens are not to be interpreted as two ends of a spectrum—the ideas in this series of essay extend beyond these—but as an analog of the cultural blends that shape my thinking. Jerusalem is an analog of the East, although there are many versions of “East”, which influences me through my heritage, birthplace, faith, and early education. Athens is an analog of the West, the intellectual culture inherited from ancient Greece, in which my life and work are immersed. Between Jerusalem and Athens is also a tribute to Abraham J. Heschel, whose writings have opened up new horizons in the way I see faith and spirituality—a peek into the philosophy of Judaism.
The 7 essays in this series, split into 9 posts, are descriptions of the world through my lens. Looking around, I see a siloed world—academically, in the workplace, spiritually, personally, in public service, media—segmented based on certain artificial categorizations. In many cases, these categories and classes have helped us focus, analyze, and make much progress as a species. But they are not without downfalls, as the categorizations may turn into barriers, dividing people. These essays are my response to the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, and my quest to find solutions by exploring other worldviews.
On avoiding single-mindedness and telling a one-sided story. “The danger of a single narrative comes when it is accepted in pure disregard of other possible narratives, solely labeling something as good or bad without acknowledging the alternative.”
On the silos of knowledge that prevent communication and collaborations across artificial barriers that are much needed to solve complex real world problems. This is a vote for multidisciplinary thinking, the widening of the scope of our thinking beyond conventional academic categorizations.
On the separation between the mind, body, and soul—the components that make up our humanity—that causes an unfulfilling life. Addressing the need for a balanced development on all aspects of our being.
Asian and Western cultures are descendants of two different ancient philosophies, namely the ancient Chinese and Greek cultures, respectively. This essay is on the core principles of each culture and how they affect today’s societies.
When a paradigm categorizes things too much and has difficulties reconciling paradoxes. Real life is messier than theoretical analyses.
There is a book that I return to many times, titled Education by the insightful Ellen White. Its profound first paragraph never fails to strike me every time I read it, and it serves as inspiration for the essays above. It is an argument for a life of learning that is wide is scope, multidisciplinary, practical, and well integrated. This, to me, is the perfect way to end this series.
Our ideas of education take too narrow and too low a range. There is need of a broader scope, a higher aim. True education means more than the pursual of a certain course of study. It means more than a preparation for the life that now is. It has to do with the whole being, and with the whole period of existence possible to man. It is the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers. It prepares the student for the joy of service in this world and for the higher joy of wider service in the world to come.
This article on either-or thinking is the seventh and last essay in a series titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the first, second, third, fourth, fifth here and here, and sixth here and here.
In Asian and Western Minds, Part 2: How They Differ, one of the ways that Eastern and Western mindsets differ is in resolving contradictions. Easterners tend to transcend different and opposing views, seeking the middle way and finding the truth on both sides (i.e., dialectical reasoning), while Westerners tend to insist more on the “rightness” of one view over the other. The laws that govern much of the Western intellectual culture–the law of identity and the law of noncontradiction–lead to a method of thinking dubbed either-or thinking.
What is Either-Or Thinking?
Either-or thinking is a method of parsing concepts by dividing them into a dichotomy–two opposing options–where the alternatives cannot coexist with each other. It is absolutely one or the other, also known as black and white thinking. This methodology can be useful, such as in solving math problems, but it is not without weakness.
Observant readers may say, Isn’t the Western vs. Eastern comparison itself a false dichotomy? To which I would answer, yes, if it is seen as an either-or situation. Ideas don’t belong exclusively in the East or West, and anyone in the East or West is likely a hybrid of world cultures. These are abstractions, general categorizations to represent sets of ideas, models to represent real life. In other words, they are theoretical dichotomies, and as such, they involve simplifications of reality.
In real life, Western and Eastern ideas travel and mix together. General trends may be observed, but the details are far messier than what essays can describe. Further, the world is not divided into just two mindsets–there’s a spectrum of thoughts and paradigms in across Earth’s geography.
What then is the point of discussing these concepts at all, as I have for many extensive posts (see links above)? Well, models and simplifications are still useful in getting some modicum of understanding. The danger is in extrapolating the lessons too much, beyond what the models are intended to represent.
The Downfall of Either-Or Thinking
In the Greek intellectual tradition that values public discourse and debates, it is easy to see how either-or thinking flourishes. It is a perfect set up for an engaging debate in pursuit of answering the question, Which side is more right?
The obsession with categories of the either/or sort runs through Western intellectual history. Dichotomies abound in every century and form the basis for often fruitless debates: for example, “mind-body” controversies in which partisans take sides as to whether a given behavior is best understood as being produced by the mind independent of any biological embodiment, or as a purely physical reaction unmediated by mental processes. The “nature-nurture” controversy is another debate that has often proved to generate more heat than light…nearly all behaviors that are characteristic of higher order mammals are determined by both nature and nurture. The dichotomy “emotion-reason” has obscured more than it has revealed…it makes sense to separate the two for purposes of analysis only.
Throughout Western intellectual history, there has been a conviction that it is possible to find the necessary and sufficient conditions for any category. A square is a two-dimensional object with four sides of equal length and four right angles. Nothing lacking these properties can be a square and anything having those properties is definitely a square.
While either-or thinking can produce a clean analytical narrative, a comprehensive understanding of each side, perfectly defined and characterized, it often doesn’t correspond to real life. As Nisbett says, separating a phenomenon into two ideas is convenient for theoretical analysis only, but if it is not followed by a zoomed-out view back to reality, it can lead to useless fights. Real life does not deconstruct itself neatly into two buckets.
Either-or thinking is less prevalent in the intellectual culture of the East, where things are not always defined by necessary and sufficient conditions. The ambiguity of definitions is prevalent, concepts can be fluid, and dialectical reasoning transcends the opposing views.
The West Side of the East
Nisbett’s book deals specifically with the differences between the West and the Far East, those influenced by the ancient Chinese culture. These serve as an interesting backdrop for me to compare and contrast with Near Eastern thoughts. I should note that I do resent the Euro centricity of these terminologies. The “far” and “near” designations are decidedly Western, and I will try to avoid them.
This is perhaps the right time to reveal the motivations behind the essays in Between Jerusalem and Athens (see links above). My forays into these worldviews were first prodded by certain dissatisfaction in religious dialogues, which, being a Christian, were intertwined with the culture and traditions of the Mediterranean region. I enjoy analytical readings of the Bible, which I learned largely after my move to the West (see A Child of East and West, Part 1 and Part 2). Yet, there are limits to a Western analysis of the Bible, especially because the Bible comes from an Eastern society. Its stories, language, and images come from a different world, and this discrepancy can cause misunderstandings.
I do not mean here that some Bible teachings only apply to people in the East and not the West, or vice versa. The principles it teaches transcend cultures, but they are delivered and couched in a particular societal context. An understanding of the context will allow proper understanding of the principles that are being communicated.
Being a Christian in America, one ought to be aware of the cultural differences between oneself and the writer of Biblical passages. Words and concepts can have different nuances in different place and times, and one should always fight the urge of imposing her own culture to the text, imposing meaning that is not intended by the writer.
Unfortunately, these things happen. It is not easy to escape the bent of one’s mind. Biblical concepts, which have many paradoxes, are often discussed in an either-or manner that result in debates between two camps without much edification.
Examples of either-or fallacy include questions like, Is there such thing as true altruism, as in, is an altruistic deed still altruistic when the person feels good about it? Which one is more important, the motive or the deed? The more Christian versions of these questions are on faith and works, justice and mercy, God’s love and His anger, Christ’s divine and human nature, and many others. Is obedience a condition of the heart or a deed? Each issue can make friends and enemies, dissecting a community into 2 debate teams. As for me, I am often confused at the resistance against embracing both sides of the paradox. Why can’t it be both? We don’t have to accept one side in exclusion of the other, especially when the Bible teaches both. Is this a cultural phenomenon?
The Beautiful Resolutions
For an either-or mind, paradoxes are sources of consternations. But, say, you take the either-or framework away, things may actually resolve itself. Listen to what Abraham J. Heschel, a Jewish writer, wrote in his essay Jewish Thinking:
We are essentially trained in a non-Jewish world. This is where we obtain our general training. We are inclined to think in non-Jewish terms. I am not discouraging exposure to the non-Jewish world. I am merely indicating that it is not biblical thinking… If you take biblical passages or biblical documents or rabbinic statements, and submit them to a Greek mind, they often are absurd. They make no sense.
This absurdity comes the mismatch between the mental frameworks of the source and the analyst. Understanding the Bible requires an understanding of life as seen by the Bible.
Jewish thinking and living can only be adequately understood in terms of a dialectic pattern, containing opposite or contrasted properties. As in a magnet, the ends of which have opposite magnetic qualities, these terms are opposite to one another and exemplify a polarity which lies at the very heart of Judaism, the polarity of ideas and events, of mitzvah and sin, of kavanah and deed, of regularity and spontaneity, of uniformity and individuality, of halacha and agada, of law and inwardness, of love and fear, of understanding and obedience, of joy and discipline, of the good and the evil drive, of time and eternity, of this world and the world to come, of revelation and response, of insight and information, of empathy and self-expression, of creed and faith, of the word and that which is beyond words, of man’s quest for God and God in search of man. Even God’s relation to the world is characterized by the polarity of justice and mercy, providence and concealment, the promise of reward and the demand to serve Him for His sake. Taken abstractly, all these terms seem to be mutually exclusive, yet in actual living they involve each other; the separation of the two is fatal to both.
God is Judge and Creator, and not only Revealer and Redeemer. Detached from the Hebrew Bible, people began to cherish one perspective of the meaning of God, preferably His promise as Redeemer, and become oblivious to His demanding presence as Judge, to His sublime transcendence as Creator. The insistence upon His love without realizing His wrath, the teaching of His immanence without stressing His transcendence, the certainty of His miracles without an awareness of the infinite darkness of His absence—these are dangerous distortions.
The dichotomy of faith and works which presented such an important problem in Christian theology was never a problem in Judaism. To us, the basic problem is neither what is the right action nor what is the right intention. The basic problem is: what is right living? And life is indivisible. The inner sphere is never isolated from outward activities. Deed and thought are bound into one. All a person thinks and feels enters everything he does, and all he does is involved in everything he thinks and feels.
Spiritual aspirations are doomed to failure when we try to cultivate deeds at the expense of thoughts or thoughts at the expense of deeds. Is it the artist’s inner vision or his wrestling with the stone that brings about a work of sculpture? Right living is like a work of art, the product of a vision and of a wrestling with concrete situations.
There’s a time to atomize something, and there’s a time to see it at a distance. Life is indivisible. And Biblical concepts are also interrelated. Loving God is not separate from loving fellow mankind; being forgiven by God is not separate from forgiving others (see the Lord’s prayer); a kind deed to fellow mankind is seen as a deed towards God (see Jesus’ words).
This concept of indivisibility–in education, in academia, in engineering, in life–is really at the core of all of the past essays. And this post being the final one of this series, I’d like to close with this quote:
If man were only mind, worship in thought would be the form in which to commune with God. But man is body and soul, and his goal is so to live that both “his heart and his flesh should sing to the living God.” – Heschel
Come back to read the overview of the Between Jerusalem and Athens series!